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You want freedom? Let me see some ID, first

Lorenzo Sadun


Saturday, December 8, 2001

Elvio Sadun grew up in Italy in the days of Mussolini. Back then, the Fascist Party kept tabs on everybody, and an incautious remark could get you fired from your job, arrested or worse. In 1939, Elvio fled this oppression "in search of a home." Through determination and luck, he managed to escape to the United States. Here is how he described his first day in America:

"Nina took us to a small hotel. At the office, I handed my affidavit to the receptionist. `What do you want me to do with these papers?' he asked, and added, `You pay for a room and the room is yours.' I asked him to translate what he had said, but I had already understood. We had found a place where documents were not necessary; we had found the first brick for our home."

Elvio found a job at a garment factory, where the kindness and trust of the other workers formed the second brick for his home. The third brick was the sight of open political gatherings, with a soapbox (literally) for anybody who wished to speak, in "contrast with the assemblies in Italy, with the special stands, the uniforms and the one man who spoke from on high and the many people below who listened to him."

Having built his home, Elvio had to defend it. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the U.S. Army and fought in North Africa and Italy. In his mind, he never fought against Italy. Rather, he fought against Mussolini, and helped bring the freedom he found in America to the land of his birth. 

In our time, the freedoms my father cherished have been eroded, not from external attack but from our own attitudes. Even before Sept. 11, our guiding principle had changed from "innocent until proven guilty" to "better safe than sorry." We no longer trusted one another, and we allowed our documents to become quite necessary. When I bought a yearly pass to the Texas state parks this fall, I had to give my Social Security number and show a picture ID. It's required by law, supposedly to catch "deadbeat dads." 

The private sector has also been increasing surveillance. While the problems of Internet privacy are much discussed, the actions of local merchants are just as bad. Most supermarket chains give their customers magnetic discount cards, using them to monitor their customers' shopping habits. My local video store requires both a membership card and a picture ID to rent a video, and there's always an argument when I refuse to show my ID (nevermind that I've been doing business at that store for 10 years). I can't even buy a bag of sand at Toys `R' Us, paying cash, without being asked for my telephone number. 

Most of these intrusions are said to be for my own protection. That argument is valid at airports and other high-security areas. At the state park or the video store, it is nonsense. 

At other times I am told that the intrusions are for my convenience, and there's some truth to that. The government and the businesses are not out to get me. They are just trying to do their jobs and seek the means to do it as efficiently and as conveniently (for them) as possible. My liberty does not enter into their calculations, one way or the other.

This is precisely the situation faced by Italians in the 1920s. At the time, the Fascist government was not interested in repression for its own sake. Mussolini was just trying to run the country efficiently, and the Italian populace gladly gave up its freedoms in the name of national unity. Only later did people learn that the liberty they gave up was lost for good, and that the government they trusted had turned malicious.

Let's not make the same mistake. Even in wartime, we need to respect each other's rights and dignity. We must reject hysteria and defend our freedom and privacy with the same determination that we defend our lives and property. Benjamin Franklin put it best: "Those who would willingly trade essential liberty for temporary security are deserving of neither."

Sadun is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.


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